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For singer Tony Vincent, Florida Orchestra's David Bowie tribute evokes awe, nostalgia

ST. PETERSBURG

Tony Vincent bought David Bowie's Blackstar album the day it was released.

Vincent, who had sung on the Broadway stage before appearing on The Voice, didn't know his longtime idol recorded the album while suffering from liver cancer.

Few people did.

On Jan. 10, 2016, two days after the release of the critically acclaimed Blackstar, Vincent was in his New York home. He doesn't remember whether he was in the recording studio or the den or somewhere else. He just remembers checking the newsfeed on his phone and learning that Bowie, an artistic inspiration for most of his life, was dead at 69.

"It was devastating," Vincent said, "because this guy is still creating. It's not over yet."

Now Vincent, 43, will pay tribute to the legend whose music defied genre, just as his androgynous persona evaded labels. The singer, who has performed alongside Paul McCartney before Queen Elizabeth II, will headline this weekend's Florida Orchestra concert at the Mahaffey Theater, the Music of David Bowie. Brent Havens, who has led the orchestra's previous tributes to bands including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Police, will conduct.

"It is humbling to kind of give back to his royalty, for lack of a better word, this lineage that he gave us," Vincent said. "This material never gets old. I'm in such a blessed place to be able to get back to him, to the state of Bowieness."

Vincent grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. (as Anthony Strascina, before turning to the stage name Vincent), gravitating to hard rock bands such as Van Halen, Def Leppard and the Scorpions.

"At that time, we were still based on strong melody," Vincent said. "Even if the guitars and drums were hitting hard, there was something Eddie Van Halen did that no other guitarist did, because he played melodies that were just gorgeous and epic and beautiful, even if it was under the quote-unquote heavy metal genre."

Vincent heard Bowie in the late 1970s, around the time the British singer was adding an avant-garde German rock sound to his dance-funk repertoire, the beginnings of his "Berlin period." He listened to Bowie's voyages through pop music and romance, then electronica. He marveled at the singer's abstract music videos and lyrics, and was inspired by his refusal to be categorized.

"I learned to be a songwriter on his material," said Vincent, whose album, In My Head, came out in 2012. "I studied him as someone who was not just a fan, but like, 'How is this man coming up with this turn of phrase, or this chord progression that in its own right makes no sense — but the melody line on top of it makes absolute sense?' "

Vincent moved to New York in his mid-20s, and soon landed a part in a touring production of Rent. In 1999 he cracked the musical's Broadway lineup, in the roles of Roger and Mark.

He is most widely known for his 2012 appearance on the second season of NBC's The Voice, where he made it into the late rounds before being cut by coach CeeLo Green. Vincent made a lasting impression on fans with a memorable rendition of Queen's We Are the Champions.

In an interview that aired that same year, Audra Lowe of The Better Show asked Vincent to name his "dream duet partner."

The singer didn't hesitate: "David Bowie."

Vincent lives in New York with his wife, Aspen Miller, who played opposite his lead role of Galileo Figaro in the Queen musical We Will Rock You. They have a daughter, Sadie, 5, who is "almost totally tone deaf," Vincent said. "And I'm delighted."

The music industry has spiraled into indifference, he said, its favored songs increasingly "vapid," the random rock fragments in Spotify cyberspace.

"We just know too much. Now there's no more naivete and there's no more mystique. I'm not moved to care about Mick Jagger as much as I would have because I already know what he's doing and eating for breakfast this Sunday."

Bowie died with mystique intact, if only because the singer worked so hard to preserve it. Asked about the meaning of different songs, Bowie's disarming responses ranged from a deeply personal experience (Heroes), to watching a movie while stoned (Space Oddity), to someone's guitar riff that turned into a song (Fame). His lyrics were, for the most part, relentlessly obscure, going so far as to cut up lines of text with scissors, then shuffle the deck (Diamond Dogs); or to mix some invented gibberish language from A Clockwork Orange with slang heard around the London fishmarkets (Girl Loves Me).

Vincent doesn't think anyone really knows what most of Bowie's songs mean, and that's fine with him.

"They may be a lot more clever than we think. They may not mean a whole hell of a lot. It almost doesn't matter because there was something underlying all of it that connected with people."

With the orchestra, he hopes to remind the audience of a musician who pushed back against consumer culture instead of being defined by it. Vincent won't mimic Bowie's quavery tone or stray too far from the classics. So expect to hear more Rebel Rebel and China Girl, less Always Crashing the Same Car or London Bye Ta Ta.

"It would be a big mistake if we didn't do the catalog of songs that everybody knows," he said. "We're not here to reinvent the wheel. We don't want to have these esoteric Bowie songs that maybe I like a lot. It's to take some of the most iconic songs in this man's catalog, and present them in a way that nobody has heard before. You put a 70-piece orchestra against songs that are already sort of epic in general, and it does make them larger than life. And that to me is the purpose of this."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Rebel Never

Gets Old

Tony Vincent on

David Bowie's legacy

Space Oddity (1969)

"We're talking about a lyric that is intimate, yet very distant at the same time. It spoke to something that nobody could really relate to, but it was incredibly intimate. Sonically, there are moments in the song that are incredibly in-your-face, reduced to just rhythm section and hand claps. Then outside of that, it goes into this soaring string section. I love moments like that, when that lyric and that vocal is so in-your-face, yet there is also this really sort of melancholy disconnect of who this character was that he talked about."

Ashes to Ashes (1980)

"I love the fact that he could take a song like Ashes to Ashes and flip it around, and reference Major Tom in a completely different aspect. (Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/We know Major Tom's a junkie.) It may be tongue-in-cheek to him, but it also was so purposed that it kind of makes you chuckle. Because at that time and in the current songwriting climate, it's very unique. When you can do that successfully, there's something incredibly special about it."

What did his songs mean?

"I think there were two primary themes that resonated with his audience. Number one, there was a subject matter of love, but not a conventional sense. It was more love that was either lost or hoped for, or searched after (China Girl, Thursday's Child). The kind of void that I think humanity has inside of us. And also he spoke of the outside (Space Oddity, Starman, Hallo Spaceboy, Life on Mars). Like, is there something greater than us? Is there something bigger than us that could make us better, or could help solve our minuscule problems that have become major in society? I think those two concepts were something that he addressed frequently."

The Music of David Bowie

8 p.m. Friday at the Mahaffey Theater, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $35-$65. (727) 892-3331. floridaorchestra.org.

For singer Tony Vincent, Florida Orchestra's David Bowie tribute evokes awe, nostalgia 01/31/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2017 11:57am]
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